A bad flu season in Australia is serving as a warning sign for the U.S.and Canada.
Health officials in North America are bracing for a particularly miserable flu season because Australians faced a heavy burden of flu cases, which could prove as a predictor for what might happen in Canada and the US.
In Australia, the 2017 flu season is possibly the biggest on record, with nearly three times the number of confirmed flu cases compared to 2016.
There have been more than two and a half times more flu cases reported to Australia’s National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System this year compared with the same period last year, according to Australia’s Department of Health.
According to a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada, the flu is currently interseasonal, but several indicators show above expected levels compared to previous seasons.
Flu season typically runs from November to March.
In early September, the majority of influenza cases in Canada came from a virus known as H3N2. That virus is historically linked to heavier flu seasons and is known to be particularly hard on seniors.
“It is still too early to say whether it will be a predominantly H3N2 season, but if that is the case it tends to be a more severe flu type,” Dr. Theresa Tam, head of the Public Health Agency of Canada, told CTV News.
The H3N2 virus also showed up in Canada last year.
Most the cases have been in people over the age of 80 and in between the ages of 5 and 9. They have largely involved a strain of influenza virus known as H3N2, which reportedly can cause more severe issues for older people and those with weakened immune systems.
The outbreak in Australia has health officials in America watching for a particularly bad flu season.
“In general, we get in our season what the Southern Hemisphere got in the season immediately preceding us,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN. An “intelligent guess,” he said, is the north will most likely have a bad flu season.
Dr. Steven Lawrence, an infectious disease specialist at Washington University in St. Louis, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that flu season typically begins when temperatures start to drop, usually around Halloween. It generally peaks around the Super Bowl and is finished by Easter.
A key thing to watch is the strain of the virus hitting Australia, Adolfo García-Sastre, director of the Center for Research on Influenza Pathogenesis at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, told CNN.
The current available flu shot protects against what is circulating in Australia, according to the Post-Dispatch.
But if the strain has changed, García-Sastre notes that a mismatch between it and the vaccine “could explain larger incidence” in Australia. A vaccine guarding against four virus strains is reportedly expected to be more widely available this year.
Influenza viruses are believed to be spread from person-to-person contact through saliva from sneezing, talking or coughing, and symptoms from the ensuing respiratory illness include fever, cough, muscle aches and fatigue.
Those most vulnerable are people older than 65, those with certain chronic medical conditions, pregnant women and young children. However, federal guidelines call for everyone older than 6 months to receive the vaccine.
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